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PSN Review – Zen Pinball & DLC

October 21, 2010 Written by Paulmichael Contreras

The pinball industry has seen better days, with only one major retailer, Stern Pinball, still producing actual, original pinball tables. While you can go out to an arcade or bar and try to find a machine, the easier thing to do these days is play pinball virtually. With Zen Pinball having its new “Paranormal” table release on the PSN, we figured this would be a perfect time to review both the full game as well as the latest DLC. So does this game endlessly eat your virtual quarters, or would you be better off playing a table in real life? Find out here.

When you first start up the game, the menu is shown near the flippers of a pinball table, and the option that is selected flashes like a pinball light. The entire game, in fact, mimics the feel of a pinball table/arcade, and is done very well. A ticker near the bottom of the screen flies by, indicating how players both on your friends list and off have been doing in recent bouts of games. Even that ticker is made to look like an LCD screen that you would see on actual pinball machines. This is all done at 720p resolution, which is more than serviceable.

For those worried that its $10 price point may mean that you do not get many tables from the start, do not be worried. The game ships with four tables, each incredibly varied. Everyone will have their favorite from that pack, but if you’re looking for even more variety there are now six premium tables available for purchase, which are all under $5. The tables that do come with the game are:
  • “Shaman,” a “native tribe” themed level
  • “Tesla,” a Nikola Tesla-inspired, electricity-themed level
  • “El Dorado,” a treasure-hunting level
  • “V12,” a hot-rod themed level

Every table acts just like a real-life table. You get access via the pause menu to the “Operators Menu”, which enables you to really mess around with the table’s settings. This includes things such as timers, maximum number of extra balls that can be earned, table-specific settings, and even the level of the playing field, which is represented by a bubble level. All of this is done via onscreen prompts on the game’s LCD screen. Changing any of the major adjustments does disable the ability to upload your scores to the leaderboards, as well as trophies. But changing things such as the difficulty level will give you more balls per game, which should help get you used to the board and able to achieve ever higher scores when playing at factory settings.

However (and pinball purists may hate this), with the game being on a videogame console the tables do have features that real-life pinball tables could only dream of having. Fully animated characters and objects are prominently featured on tables, though the figures are made to look like they are animatronic. This does provide for some more creative freedoms, however, such as the “Tesla” table’s magnetic field that you can control with the flippers in a mini-game. These features really add to the experience though.

There is a Ninja Gaiden premium table, among others.

A pinball game that looks and feels like an actual pinball machine is nice to look at, but if the physics are even slightly off then everything just feels wrong. Thankfully, that isn’t the case here. The flippers are as quick as in real life to react to your button press, and the ball glides smoothly up and down ramps and obstacles. The framerate stays steady the entire time, so any time you lose a ball it is most likely your own fault. However, having said that the ball does feel just slightly heavier than they are in real life, but you do get accustomed to it. Once you figure out how to control the ball on each table, aiming is quite precise.

If all of this still isn’t enough for you, the game supports online leaderboards in all kinds of categories for every table. There is also online and offline multiplayer support! Online, you play on your own table against other people on a race to accumulate the most points first. You can see the progress of your opponents in the corner, and it is pretty exhilarating. Custom soundtracks are also supported, which is always a welcome addition. The music included with each table is fitting, but of course pinball machines are usually played in loud places where other music is playing, so custom soundtrack functionality just makes sense here.

As mentioned at the beginning of this review, Zen Studios recently released the “Paranormal” table, available for purchase for $2.49 on the PS Store now. This table comes just a few weeks before Halloween, and is perfectly themed as a 1950′s private investigator horror novel or movie. It has an innovative rotating cube for a mini-game that is a haunted house standing upright. The playfield then becomes vertical, and you have to react quickly to hope to progress to higher floors in the house. There is an animated demon, a Loch Ness monster to contend with, and a set of eyeballs that you can hit for extra points. There are all kinds of objects you’d see in paranormal/horror movies here, and it is a great homage. The one complaint to be found on this table is the ball save. If your ball falls while this light is on, you don’t lose a life, and the ball is shot out the plunger lane immediately. However, you then have fractions of a second to hit the ball with your right flipper, or else it will sink down the drain again and you will lose a life a majority of the time. But still, for $2.49 you get plenty of pinball!

Considering Zen Pinball is your only choice for downloadable pinball on the PlayStation 3, it’s understandable if you are wary of buying the game. But with four great tables included, an accurate physics engine (despite a slightly heavy ball), and full emulation of an operator’s menu, as well as sensibly priced DLC, there really doesn’t need to be another pinball game on the PS Store. The game was free up until yesterday for PS+ members, but even at its $9.99 it is well worth your hard-earned money.

PlayStation LifeStyle’s Final Score


+ Great arcade-like feel.

+ Plenty of tables, goals and trophies to start you off.

+ Custom soundtracks and online multiplayer add to the experience.

9 out of 10